What To Look For When Buying a Used Car

If you’re in the market for a used car, there are many things to consider such as the dealership, vehicle history report and the physical inspection of the car. Below, we explain some of the most important factors of buying a used car and things you should consider before purchasing.

reputable dealership

Reputable Dealership

Once you find a used car you’re interested in, it’s important to research the dealership you’ll be purchasing from. Looking at online reviews about the dealership and researching where they source their inventory (most are sourced from trade-ins) will allow you to see if they are a reputable dealer.

used car inspection

Used Car Inspection

A dealership doesn’t pick just any used car to place on their lot. Every used car must go through a multipoint inspection with a highly-trained technician rigorously testing it top to bottom, front to back, inside and out to ensure it’s safe, in proper condition and ready for the road.

  • Visual: Inspect the tires, engine, lights, safety features, and condition of the vehicle’s exterior and interior.
  • Mechanical: Perform a complete mechanical inspection that covers every aspect of the vehicle, inside and out.
  • Road Test: Thorough road test to check the ease of the starting vehicle, performance and ride quality.
vehicle history report

Vehicle History Report

Most dealerships provide a CARFAX vehicle history report on every car they sell. This report includes vehicle registration, title information, odometer readings, accident history, service and repair information, accident indicators (airbag deployment) and frame/structural damage. Below, is a list of “red flags” and things that are often overlooked on a vehicle history report.

Frequent Ownership Changes

The bottom of the CARFAX report will state the owners of the vehicle. If you see there are multiple owners that bought and sold the car within a short span of time, it may mean the car has some type of challenging repair issue.

Passed Emissions Testing

In metropolitan areas, there’s often a significant portion of trade-ins that don’t pass an emissions test. Almost everywhere in the United States, it’s illegal to sell you a car that doesn’t have a current emissions record. So if you see multiple failed emissions tests or if the most recent test is well over a year, we recommend bringing it up to your dealer.

Vehicle’s Environment

It’s common for most people to ignore where the used car has lived most of its life. Even if the car has a clean CARFAX history, you should consider the potential problem of rust. Does the car come from snow streets or a sandy beach? Sometimes CARFAX will even flag certain used cars registered in areas that experience severe flooding or hurricanes.

what to look for when buying certified pre-owned vehicle

Certified Pre-Owned

There are many benefits of purchasing a certified pre-owned vehicle. These certified pre-owned vehicles come with additional warranty coverage past the new vehicle limited warranty — sometimes up to 100,000 miles or unlimited mileage. Certified pre-owned warranty coverage is so extensive it often covers almost everything on your car other than maintenance, tires, wear items and accident damage. Coverage typically includes fuel system, engine, steering, cooling system, transmission, brakes, suspension, climate controls, electrical and radio and navigation.

Other benefits include rigorous inspections, special financing (sometimes as low as 0.9% APR), vehicle history reports and roadside assistance. Plus the majority of certified pre-owned program warranties are transferable which means increased value should you choose to sell your vehicle in the future.

What To Physically Look For On A Used Car

Even though the used car goes through a rigorous car inspection, we recommend physically checking the car yourself to ensure nothing was overlooked and it meets your standards.

exterior inspection

Exterior Inspection

  • Exterior
    Check the paint job to see if there’s any rust spots, dents or scratches.
  • Trunk
    Check the trunk to make sure it’s in good condition — no signs of rust or water entry due to cracks or holes.
  • Tires
    Check the tires to ensure they are all worn evenly. Also look at the surface of the tire for bad alignment.
  • Frame
    Check the saddle (connects the front fenders and holds the top of the radiator) to inspect the bolt heads at the top of the fenders inside the hood. Scratch marks may indicate the fenders have been realigned or replaced after a crash.
  • Exhaust System
    Check for any black spots on the exhaust system because it can indicate any leaking.
under the hood inspection

Under the Hood Inspection

  • Hood
    Check under the hood for any indication of dents, rust or damage.
  • Hoses and Belts
    The radiator hoses should be soft and should not have any cracks.
  • Engine
    Check the engine for any leaks or corrosion — dark brown oil stains on the engine block may lead to expensive repairs in the future.
  • Oil
    Remove the oil cap to ensure there’s no foam residue.
  • Transmission Dipstick
    When you pull the transmission dipstick the fluid should be pink or red. In an older car it may be dark, but it shouldn’t look or smell burnt.
interior inspection

Interior Inspection

  • Seating
    Check the seats and upholstery for any stains, rips, tears or other damage.
  • Air Conditioning
    Turn on the car to see if the air conditioning works well.
  • Odometer
    Checking the odometer is important because the mileage indicates the car’s age.
  • Lights and Electronics
    Check the lights and regular functions of the car when it’s not moving — any sensors for parking, backup camera, CD, radio, music installation, etc.

Common Questions About Buying a Used Car

Websites like Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book, and CarGurus provide a car finding tool that is easy to use. Once you prioritize what you’re looking for in a used car, you can plug it into the car finding tool. Most used car search engines will allow you to search by make and model, body style, price and will even automatically rank by deal rating.
A certified pre-owned car is backed by the original manufacturer, subjected to a rigorous, multi-point inspection and comes with an extended warranty from the original date of service. A used car typically only offers the remainder of the factory warranty and only if it’s still in effect and fully transferable.
When you begin your used car search, we recommend researching the dealership you’ll be purchasing from by reading its customer reviews. After you pick out a used car, remember to take a close look at its vehicle history report. Things to look at include frequent ownership changes, passed emissions testing, and the type of environment the car has lived in. Once your used car of choice is physically in front of you, we recommend inspecting it thoroughly. This includes exterior, interior and under the hood inspections.
Before you begin your used car research it’s important to find out exactly how much you can afford. Factors of a good car budget include down payment, financing rate, and monthly payment. Used car resources such as AutoTrader usually provide an auto loan calculator to help you figure out an estimate quickly.
At a car auction, you may not have the opportunity to look at the vehicle as thoroughly as you would at a car dealership. These car auction vehicles also sell “as is” which means no guarantees and no warranties. You may be able to save money at a car auction, but you’ll have a peace of mind knowing a dealership provides a vehicle history report and inspection.